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Through the Lens of Humanity: Ethics in the Girl and the Vulture

Updated on June 20, 2015

David Carter's the Girl and the Vulture

The Power of Pictures

Pictures can change our perceptions and assumptions and about our place in the world. Pictures are a window into what we otherwise wouldn't be able to see. We look at pictures every day, but most of them don’t elicit much emotion in us. Some pictures make us nostalgic, happy, sad, or angry but without much effect on us. However, sometimes we ran into pictures that challenge our comfort zone and educe us into action. For example, a picture that freezes a moment of indescribable pain, hopelessness and death, undeniably borrows into our hearts.

David Carter’s picture of the Vulture and Child supposedly elicited reactions of anger and contempt in people. Carter was criticized for not having helped the girl and for having profited from the picture. His profit from the picture of course, came in many other ways besides monetary retribution. For example, he got his job done, and he eluded any moral responsibility behind the lens. [1]But, as Carter, himself, wrote in his suicide note: he was “tired of trigger- happy madman.”1Then, are we right to criticize Carter for what he did or didn’t do? American people, or anyone else who saw the picture, were ready to point the finger and condemn Carter for not having done what was deemed right, or, what was expected from a human being in a moment like this: help someone who is in distress.

The picture spoke to them. It told them that it was surreal, an anachronism against normal life. It was so far, so detached from their own reality that looking at the girl, the vulture, and the implied message made them cringe with disgust. But those who saw the picture and criticized Carter lived in a very different world, unharmed, secured, and with many freedoms. It was so painful to look at such perversion that they had to find a culprit; someone, whom to blame. Someone who should pay for this sin and Carter was their scapegoat.

From an ethical point of view:

To question Carter for not helping the girl adds a total different dimension to the case. I don’t see how taking the picture is connected to the criticism of helping, or not helping the girl- What if Carter had taken the picture and then fed the girl- would that have redeemed him? Would his taking the picture have been ethical then? Would the opinion of those who saw the picture had been more lenient toward Carter had he acted? According to Liskovich, Carter had been instructed not to touch anyone. But even if he had tried, he couldn’t have done much; the whole country was ravaged with death and destruction. Many others were starving and dying; 1and as cruel as the occasion was, the girl was only one more of them. In a way, I believe Carter did help the girl, and with it the greater good. He recorded her suffering. The picture was to be proof of her having existed, of her having suffered, and perhaps, it was to be a path of change for others who were also suffering. Carter’s picture of the Girl and the Vulture brings to light the injustice and the failed policies of Africa and other countries in the world.

It is easy to judge somebody else from the wrongs they have done. But perhaps we have to take into account the circumstances surrounding the moment. In this case we need to try to imagine what Carter was feeling at that moment, what he was thinking and how he was making sense of his surroundings. How are we supposed to know the emotions he felt at that moment when he saw the girl lying there? Was he selfish in snapping the picture? Who are we to judge his decision? I bet we can’t even imagine what it must feel like to experience such a traumatic moment. His first instinct as a professional photojournalist was to immortalize the moment, to not let it pass unchanged. That is, “photojournalists with strong principles for telling the truth will take the picture no matter how gruesome the moment may be.”[2]But after he had done his job Carter was able to absorb the moment, and his feelings burst out of him. When he put his camera down he was no longer a photographer, but only a human being looking through the lens of his humanity.

It is very difficult to decide if Carter was ethical or not, because if we do, we would be judging him according to our own expectations and beliefs. But we must understand what is expected of a human being. As human beings we should, above all, respond to the pain and the need of others, and his not acting, his not helping makes us question his humanity and his morals. The criticism to Carter may come from our belief that, as human beings, we are entrusted with duties of responsibility, and sympathy towards one another. And in the eyes of those who expected Carter to have acted as a human being and not as a mere professional, his actions were inexcusable. That moment demanded than he acted with compassion and duty; but he did not, instead, he decided to detach himself from that moment, and after he took the picture, he sat and wept.1

[1] Liskovich Tatyana ,DartmoutCollege of Ethics Institute

[2] Lester Paul, Photojournalism An Ethical Approach


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